This Week in History provides brief synopses of important historical events whose anniversaries fall this week.
25 years ago: Civilians massacred in Sri Lanka
On April 17, a massacre of 126 civilian holiday travelers—men, women and children—took place in the village of Alut Oya in the Trincomalee district, about 120 miles north of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Gunmen stopped trucks and buses filled with vacationers, ordered the passengers out and shot them. Most of the victims were members of the ethnic Sinhalese majority.
Civil war had been raging in the island nation since the summer of 1983, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), claiming to represent the ethnic Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, launched a military campaign to create a separate state.
The government of President J.R. Jayawardena blamed the April 17 massacre on the LTTE, which denounced the accusation and denied responsibility. The massacre had the earmarks of a state provocation. The ambush took place on a road bounded on one side by a police station and on the other an army base. No one was ever caught, and no credible explanation of how an armed force of Tamils could allegedly enter, commit the killings, and vanish from the overwhelmingly Sinhalese district was ever provided.
Four days later, April 21, a bomb exploded in a central bus terminal in downtown Colombo, killing up to 150 people. The bombing, very likely another provocation, provided the right-wing United National Party (UNP) government with a pretext for locking down the city and repressing workers’ struggles.
A round-the-clock curfew was imposed with only a four-hour break in the mornings for shopping. Scheduled May Day demonstrations were canceled by the government, and this was accepted by the leaderships of the Communist Party and Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). This capitulation by the LSSP and the Stalinists only encouraged the government and other right-wing forces to intensify their attacks.
The Tamil minority in Sri Lanka makes up 2 million of the island’s 18 million inhabitants. Following the outbreak of the civil war in 1983, the Sinhalese-dominated government carried out a murderous war against the Tamils, which had by April of 1987 claimed the lives of over 5,000 people.
50 years ago: US initiates Strategic Hamlet program in South Vietnam
On April 17, 1962, the US formally initiated its Strategic Hamlet program of forced relocation of villagers in South Vietnam. The program, which had been approved in 1961 by President John Kennedy, saw more than 8.5 million South Vietnamese compelled to move in little more than a year, the Pentagon Papers later revealed.
The aim of the Strategic Hamlet program was to prop up the South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, which was failing to contain a the popular insurgency by the “Viet Cong” (as Diem called the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, or NLF), which promised land reform and the reunification of the South with the North Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh.
The program was by every measure a colossal failure. The relocations were inevitably accompanied by violence and abuse of South Vietnamese villagers, which only increased the influence of the NLF. Many of the sites chosen for relocation were poor agriculturally, dooming those transplanted to misery.
By 1964, the Johnson administration had given up on Strategic Hamlets. Most of the 7,205 hamlets that had been built were left abandoned, their tin roofs stripped by the NLF for scrap, leaving behind “rows of roofless houses [that] looked like villages of play huts that children had erected and then whimsically abandoned,” in the words of New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.
75 years ago: Trotsky testimony closes hearings of Dewey Commission
On April 17, 1937, Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian Revolution and founder and leader of the Fourth International, delivered his closing remarks before the Dewey Commission. Even though he began speaking at five o’clock in the afternoon and did not finish until 8:45 that evening, Trotsky gave only a portion of his testimony. Speaking in English, Trotsky denounced Stalin as a “forger” and condemned the Moscow Trials as “the greatest frame-up in history.”
Trotsky opened his remarks by posing the obvious question arising from the Moscow Trials—either he and most of Lenin’s contemporaries in 1917 were traitors to the first workers state, or Stalin and his Politbureau were liars. The trials, Trotsky said, were choreographed “plays” with roles prepared in advance and no real contest between prosecution and defense. They were “a question of inquisitorial technique and not of justice.”
The accusations were so outlandish and absurd that Stalin had to falsify the historical record, Trotsky explained. He stressed that in evaluating the accusations, the political records of the accused had to be considered.
If Lenin’s contemporaries, including Trotsky, had given their adult lives to the cause of international socialism and the Russian Revolution, why, asked the defendant, would they assassinate Kirov, sabotage Russian industry, collude with both Germany and Japan to restore capitalism in Russia, and thereby destroy what was, even after the Stalinist degeneration, their life’s work?
As Isaac Deutscher wrote in his biography of the Russian exile, “It would have been suicidal folly for the Opposition to commit any of these crimes. The unreality of the accusation accounted for the prosecution’s inability to produce any valid evidence.”
The only “evidence” produced by the Kremlin consisted of torture-induced confessions.
Trotsky ended his magisterial speech by defending the October Revolution and socialism. Soviet society, he declared, still represented, despite Stalin’s usurpation, the greatest step yet taken toward a future truly fitting humanity.
“The experiences of my life,” said Trotsky, “in which there has been no lack either of successes or failures, have not only not destroyed my faith in the clear, bright future of mankind, but, on the contrary, have given it an indestructible temper. This faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity, which at the age of eighteen I took with me into the workers’ quarters of the provincial Russian town of Nikolayev—this faith I have preserved fully and completely. It has become more mature, but not less ardent.”
After a moment of stunned silence, the audience broke into spontaneous and enthusiastic applause. Chairman John Dewey closed the proceedings by saying, “Anything I say will be an anti-climax.”
100 years ago: Lena massacre in Russia
Some 250 peaceful strikers were killed at the Lena Goldfields in Siberia by Tsarist troops on April 17, 1912, and another 270 injured. The attack sparked a wave of mass strikes in Russia and contributed to the political radicalization of the working class. It signaled the end of the period of “stability” that had followed the bloody suppression of the 1905 revolution.
The English company Lena Goldfields Limited dominated mining in the region. In 1911, it controlled over 400 mines on some 100,000 kilometers of territory, and also monopolized river and rail transportation in the region.
The area was remote and underdeveloped. Strikes and industrial unrest were common between the 1870s and 1890s. By 1905, strikes were breaking out at neighboring companies and miners began to demand a reduction of the working day, which was often sixteen hours.
Retail outlets were also owned by the company, which charged exorbitant prices. Between 1908 and 1912, miners’ salaries fell while the cost of living increased. The company also withheld wages without paying interest.
Infectious diseases, gastrointestinal disorders and lung disease were rampant due to the cramped and unsanitary conditions in which miners and their families lived and worked.
Such exploitation became intolerable and strike committees were established in March 1912, with leaders chosen from amongst the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Anarchists, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Strike demands issued on March 6, 1912 included better food, pay, medical care and living conditions, plus improved conditions in the mines and an eight-hour day. These were rejected, and on April 4 strike leaders were arrested, sparking outrage among the miners.
On April 17, 3,000 Lena Goldfields miners marched to demand the release of the jailed leaders. To prevent them uniting with 2,000 miners in Feodosievsk, tsarist troops gunned them down. The massacre provoked a revolutionary upsurge throughout Russia with more than 300,000 workers striking. By early 1914, striking industrial workers numbered 2 million.